classic film

Is Persona the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Back in an era where it was much harder to watch “classic” films, I sought out Wild Strawberries. Ingmar Bergman is one of those names you know even before you spend any time with serious film, but I had no idea what I was going to see. I specifically didn’t look up anything, I just knew it was a movie I was “supposed to” see, so I saw it. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t like it or dislike it, it just washed over me and I went on to other things.

There’s a lot that’s been written about how you’re supposed to watch movies. You need to know what you’re doing, which seems a little crazy to say but is definitely true. I didn’t know, then, and I’m not sure I do now, but I’m at least closer to it than then. David Lynch famously gave a profane quote about watching movies on your phone and called it “such a sadness.” I watched Wild Strawberries on a DVD I got in the mail, which must sound like a very silly thing to do to someone who isn’t a very specific age. I’ve watched a few other Bergman films since then, but only recently did I tackle Persona, the top of the mountain, and not on a phone.

The experience of Persona reminded me of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager. I felt like it was a joke, somehow, and that everyone kept telling people it was a classic because they wanted other people to have to deal with it because they’d had to sit through it. I liked a lot of it, but some of the more expressionistic stuff felt impenetrable, as though it wasn’t just that I didn’t get it but that there wasn’t something to get. It’s since become one of my favorite films. You don’t owe any movie that level of work, but as Lynch says, it’s a sadness if you aren’t willing to try, given the assumption that the movie is worth it.

Persona reminded me of that experience because the opening is the most daring thing I’ve ever seen put to camera. A series of horrific images mixes with a projector showing a film. We see a spider walking and we see nails being driven into hands. We see brutality even beyond that and we are shocked, immediately, before we even see a character. The character we do see, a boy, isn’t identified until much later and we only see that he sees other people before we get anything that could pass for narrative.

This is one of the greatest films of all time and there’s consensus, such as it is possible for that to happen, beyond reasonable doubt. If you don’t like Persona, the math suggests that you must be wrong, which is always a weird place to approach a film. I was horrified, immediately, but you’re supposed to feel that way. You’re supposed to be disoriented, maybe even frustrated, and to wonder what the point of this is. That’s a very weird way to start one of the greatest films of all time.

This is the inspiration for the elements of the story in Fight Club where a projectionist cuts together horrific things to shock audiences. There’s a direct reference in Fight Club to one of the images in Persona, and the techniques in the film further this reference. The story even owes a really strong nod, though that’s more complicated. It’s surely not only the relationship to Fight Club that does this, but the only negative thing anyone can find to say about Persona is that it is a dreaded “pretentious” movie.

That word doesn’t really mean anything anymore when you’re talking about a movie. It’s just a stand-in for “I don’t like it.” It’s the thing you accuse 2001 of when you’re a teenager. It’s looking at something you don’t get and, yes, demanding that there is no there there. As you age out of that you open yourself up to realizing that it’s possible, and even likely, that the problem lies with you.

Persona demands this immediately. The opening is horrific, but it’s a test. The viewer has to be prepared to be shocked and frightened by things they are already frightened by, but this is all to get you in the mood. It’s for much better minds than me to explain, but it inarguably prepares you to see something that’s just a little off. When we join the narrative and it’s so straightforward, it feels like a relief.

A nurse, Alma, is assigned to take care of a woman, Elisabet. The patient has opted to no longer speak or move, but the hospital staff have deduced this is not an actual illness, but a choice. An especially intense doctor suggests they retire to the seaside and recoup. The two women go to the sea and we see the contrast between the two women play out over and over. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann were cast partially because they look similar, allowing for visual tricks where the two appear to become one another and to create a sense that these two belong in this setting.

It’s all these two women. No one else is on screen for more than a few minutes or a few lines. This is almost entirely a mute part from Ullmann and a nonstop ramble, sometimes confident and sometimes nervous, from Andersson. It’s incredible and gripping, partially horrific because of how we got here but partially because of the creeping hope that Ullmann will speak. Her armor cracks as Andersson challenges her motives and it provides space to discuss themes in a way that other films would struggle to do naturally.

This is all part of what makes Persona one of the most talked about movies of all time. I couldn’t believe it, over and over, and I’m still not sure I do. It can be frustrating to see a movie where the given reality at any moment might be up for debate, but that shifting here suggests that maybe it never happens. Maybe this is all as it seems, which might even be worse.

Andersson gives one of the all-time monologue performances during a graphic description of a surprising day from her youth. If you somehow haven’t seen it but plan to, I won’t give the game away, but it is iconic for a reason. It briefly suggests these two might connect, but their paths are headed towards an entirely different thing. The tension comes from Elisabet’s silence, but also from the impact the silence has on the talkative Alma.

During high points of tension, Bergman cuts away to show the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in South Vietnam and a famous photograph of the Warsaw Uprising. These are some of the most significant and memorable acts of resistance in modern history, and here they are meant to ratchet up the intensity of what the characters are experiencing. Elisabet is said to be silent because it’s all too much. Her doctor hypothesizes this is a response that allows her to take no action and risk no mistakes. Is this true? Is it a simplification? Does it matter?

The performances are world-class, but the mystery of why it’s happening goes so much deeper than asking why one will not speak. The visual effects are one thing and it’s fair if a cutaway to a horrific world event or an unexpected frame skip works for you or not, but you cannot deny what you’re seeing. It’s important to see movies like this, if only to recognize when they get cribbed down the line. Bergman made something undeniable that will haunt people forever, but he also had that Velvet Underground kind of influence on filmmakers. People saw this and started a band, so to speak, and it won’t leave you for a very long time after you see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. I liked PlayTime fine, but Persona is a masterpiece. I thought PlayTime was ambitious and surprising, but especially for the last hour I was checking my watch a lot. The restaurant scene is extremely long and doesn’t necessarily build on the premise, though I think the first half of PlayTime ranks among the best things I’ve ever seen.

Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, so far. I will dethrone In the Mood for Love, unexpectedly, for Bergman’s horrific look at what it actually means to be you. I intended to write mostly about how Persona is an inspiration for Mulholland Drive, which is not really a new idea or anything, but I left it out entirely because I ran out of space. I just loved it, not because I liked the experience, but because I was so surprised. It’s a really nice feeling to be surprised by what a movie can do, even if that surprise isn’t a good one. This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen, but by that I mean that you owe it to yourself to scale the mountain.

You can watch Persona on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Minari the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I do not read GQ, but someone linked this article on Twitter and I think it contains a few interesting things worth pulling out to start a discussion of Minari. First, it includes the prices of all the clothes Steve Yeun wears in all the pictures, which seems to be their “deal” but is ridiculous in a piece like this. Second, it includes this from Yeun:

“There’s this built-in Voltron image of what an Asian dad is supposed to be, and to break through that is kind of difficult,” he added. “To not just break through the expectations of others, but also to break through the gaze in your own mind. We profess that we’re caught in the white American gaze, and that’s true. But we forget that we are also that gaze. That gaze is encoded into us, and the last boss is yourself.”

Yeun said this as part of a larger discussion about his character in Minari. He plays Jacob Yi, a Korean American farm worker who wants to grow vegetables. He wants to build a life for his family and he’s willing to take a risk to do it. It’s one thing to make it and quite another to feel like you’ve made it, and Jacob will only be satisfied if he feels like he’s made it his way.

Han Ye-ri plays his wife Monica, who is frustrated with slow progress and the distance and difficulties that she feels Jacob is inserting into their lives. She doesn’t want to live in the country, especially not rural Arkansas, and she doesn’t think this is the right path for their family. Daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim) don’t get much say in the matter and seem to try to fit in as best they can.

The movie hinges around Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) coming to live with them and the energy she changes with her presence. David especially is thrown by this wild, strange woman who “doesn’t act like a grandmother.” David has a heart condition and struggles with daily life, while Soon-ja wants to drink Mountain Dew and watch pro wrestling. It’s a role reversal between two characters we spend a lot of time with and it adds to the reality of the world. These aren’t stock figures in a movie about “finding a better life,” these are real people with real quirks and real ambitions.

There are no heroes or villains, even outside of the Yi family. The only other character with any significant screen time is Paul, played by Will Patton, who carries a cross around on Sunday and won’t even touch a cigarette. He’s a bit of a cartoon, but the longer he hangs around the more it feels like just a heightened version of a real person you might run into in this world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Arkansas and I felt like it was still a bit much, but it’s notable that he is just a guy who hangs around and wants to help.

It shouldn’t be remarkable that a movie like this is just about a real story and how characters move through it, but I feel I have to call out that no one wants to destroy the Yi family because they came in as Korean Americans and they’re the other. There is no scene with a dude with one overall strap buttoned saying he doesn’t like “their kind.” There is racial tension through misunderstanding and through the immigrant experience, but it is done through narrative rather than through tropes. Even in a scene where a white kid asks David a racist question about his appearance, it’s clear from how the scene plays out and what follows that this is realistic confusion and, arguably, curiosity. We can infer some of the greater difficulties and the movie doesn’t present a rosy picture, but it doesn’t feel the need to talk down to the audience to understand the societal challenge.

I really enjoyed it, front to back. This is the first new release I’ve watched by paying full-ticket price during lockdown and I’d recommend it. People seem to balk at the price, but for my fiancé and I, it would have cost more to do it at the theater. Hard to judge it in that context and I hope that the revenue it makes does films like this some good. Minari is in a weird space with cultural conversation, as it was nominated for (and won) Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards. The Globes say that any movie with more than 50% of the dialogue not in English is “foreign,” which may work as a technical definition but is a tough statement to make about a movie about Americans having the American experience in America. The Globes are always dumb, but rarely in ways this easy to understand and disagree with.

Reading “(USA)” as the country under the foreign film section of the winners of this year’s Globes is the height of silliness, but it calls to mind a number of similar conversations. A friend of mine mentioned Roma the other day and the first thing I thought of was a debate about if a Netflix movie can be a real “Best Picture” candidate. That debate looks very silly now for obvious reasons, and I hope that this debate looks silly in future years for even more obvious reasons.

Dumb debates about American film aside, Minari is a powerful, frustrating movie. I say frustrating in a positive way, as it succeeds in showing a family struggle as the principle figures clash about what is best for their future. It also shows a marriage in crisis without necessarily saying that or spending all the possible screen time on it. It’s never far from what’s happening, but Jacob pushes against the idea saying that everything will be okay once he can get into business. It’s never that simple and it isn’t for Jacob and Monica, either.

To return to Yeun’s quote at the top, his character really is fascinating. I’m not Korean American and I cannot begin to understand the experience, but the accomplishment is still very clear. Minari has to show us a family that is distinctly Korean as well as distinctly American and to do so in a way that doesn’t ever pull us out of the story to help us understand either point. Choices need to feel like part of a larger story and characterization, which they continuously do. These should be table stakes, but I don’t feel like they are in a lot of movies. It’s just a damn good story, well told, with some more difficult realities to examine than similar fare that would be damned with the descriptor “heartwarming.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is better than both versions of Solaris. It also feels better to watch this even though both movies show us a marriage where people don’t understand each other because they’re not necessarily paying attention the right way. Solaris doesn’t want you to feel good, so it’s not really a level playing field, but still going with Minari.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I really enjoyed Minari and I was surprised at the high-wire act it pulled off when showing a family that fights and struggles but not feeling like an emotional workout. I think the only thing that makes me go with In the Mood for Love is the challenge there of a love story without the love is even harder, but I’d say Minari is the better movie to watch on a Tuesday.

You can watch Minari on YouTube ($19.99) or Amazon Prime ($19.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Solaris the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Akira Kurosawa watched the movie Solaris with the man who directed it and wrote about it. His remarks are included in the official release through Criterion and they are worth reading whether you’ve seen the film or not. He said that people find the movie slow, but he doesn’t. He said that people find Andrei Tarkovsky’s films difficult, but he doesn’t. He says these things matter-of-factly, but it’s also interesting that he brings the criticisms to the table in the first place. No one said “say some negative things and refute them,” this is ostensibly a pure piece of praise.

Tarkovsky has three films on the Sight & Sound list of best movies of all time. None of them are Solaris, but I decided to start with it anyway after my friends Mike and Eliza suggested it as a movie that you could nap to. That was a joke, but I get what they mean. It’s often called the Russian “answer” to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s lengthy, difficult masterpiece. I love 2001 and love it a little more every time I see it, but Tarkovsky hated it. He said it felt obsessed with technology and that it was lifeless. A lot of what Tarkovsky hated about 2001 is what I love about it. It’s a challenge, but a worthy challenge. Everything isn’t on the screen. That’s frustrating and there’s a valid discussion worth having about if an ending needs to be objective. Kubrick famously didn’t want to explain what happens in his movie and he wanted you to find the meaning that worked for you. The technology piece is a confusing criticism to me, but it makes a lot of sense after you see how the Russian director responded with Solaris.

All apologies to Kurosawa, but Solaris is a trying experience. There’s a reason he felt he had to, unprompted, respond to criticisms of Tarkovsky’s films as long. Solaris includes a five minute scene with no dialogue between characters we will never see again as they drive through a tunnel. It would be impossible to discuss Solaris without talking about the multiple extended periods of silent meandering shots of characters looking into the distance. It’s boring, often, and there’s really not an argument against that statement that I think a person could make.

That’s the point, really, and why I think Kubrick and Tarkovsky found different ways to explore similar space. 2001 includes a long shot where we see a spaceship dock for what feels like ten minutes. It’s long and drawn out and it’s not necessary, which has led to multiple defenses of it as part of the experience. Solaris similarly wants you to simmer in the mundane. When the main character shows up on a space station after a solo flight, he has a leather jacket on and seems almost bored by the experience. We’re supposed to infer that this happens all the time. This is not our world. People go to space here, that part isn’t supposed to be impressive.

There are four versions of this story. The original is a novel, which was made into a TV movie, which was then followed by Tarkovsky’s version in 1972, which was finally followed by Steven Soderbergh’s version in 2002. I watched the last two and I’m really glad I did, because Soderbergh’s version is fairly divisive. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a really weird version of this story. I haven’t read the novel, but just comparing the two film versions, you come away from the modern one with a bad taste in your mouth.

Solaris is an ocean planet that has some supernatural powers, allowing it to manifest certain things on the space station that our characters observe the planet from. The scientists have been there a long time and they’re starting to lose it. Our main character in both versions is a psychologist sent to figure everything out. Tarkovsky spends half an hour showing us life on Earth, with particular focus on a pilot who has had previous experience with Solaris. The pilot tells the psychologist he should hear his story and think about it, but not for too long. In the remake, George Clooney plays the psychologist and we see a montage of his experience on Earth in a lonely world, consumed by the death of his wife.

In both versions of the story the same things are true. Space is a part of life. Solaris is an ocean planet with magical powers. The doctor is haunted by his wife’s death. The thing that’s different is how they’re presented. It may sound like a small thing, but the leather jacket is a good example. In the 1972 version, the doctor wanders around and slowly discovers what is amiss. In the 2002 version, he shows up and is immediately told everything. The film’s big line, “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” is the payoff of almost three hours of rising tension in the 1972 version. In 2002 it happens fifteen minutes in, to no fanfare.

Soderbergh was making a different movie. Clooney looks worried about going to space and a side character tells him that the flight is automated and he’ll be asleep for all of it. We don’t really get that in Tarkovsky’s version, even at double the length. When we see him walk into the space station we can infer he flew there. We don’t need you to say he’ll safely fly there, don’t worry. The modern version has dozens of examples of this in the dialogue, with a constant need to explain what’s happening and how it’s happening to the audience. Clooney at one point uses a specific term for an unexplainable phenomena immediately upon learning about it. In the 1972 version this is a long scene with the character confused and frightened by their new reality, which is how anyone would experience it. It’s a very weird choice to make him ultra capable and immediately familiar with something humanity could not even imagine.

There’s nothing all that interesting in the remake, but the original is a fascinating, strange piece of art. I can’t spoil the ending, but it really surprised me, maybe even “scared” me is the right term. The remake ends similarly but without any of the visual flare or unsettling sensation of Tarkovsky’s film. Soderbergh was making an action movie and he made one, Tarkovsky was making several things at the same time. It’s a rumination on what we mean to each other and what we’re willing to do to preserve our memories.

It’s probably not a very bold take to say the long, weird Russian version is better than the Hollywood remake, but I think Solaris is a way into a more interesting discussion. If a movie is boring, is it bad? When I last saw 2001 in a theater, the crowd seemed anxious and people struggled with some of the longer shots. There’s a lot of filler in Solaris, with two long scenes about philosophical discussion of the meaning of life. Characters offhandedly drop references to great works of literature and smirk at each other in hallways over and over. Really only a few things happen over three solid hours. The tunnel I mentioned earlier is supposed to signify that they live in a futuristic society, but we’re taking quick trips into space to look at the alien world. Don’t we already know this is the future?

It’s only through Soderbergh’s attempt that Tarkovsky’s makes sense to me. It’s too long, inarguably, and it’s messy, but cut down and simplified it becomes a story no longer worth hearing. Is there a sweet spot? Probably, maybe, but you watch the spaceship dock for ten minutes because it lets you digest. You need to spend some time with this one and Tarkovsky isn’t necessarily interested with what you’re going to see while you spend that time. You bring yourself to Solaris, which means it has to hook you for it to be worth seeing. I wasn’t able to connect with all of it, but the final experience really worked for me, especially the final shot, which will haunt me for some time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I would love to hear Tarkovsky’s take on The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s an interesting comparison to make between the two male leads in these films. Both men want to improve on a past that they cannot change. Both recognize that it’s probably too late, but want the experience of trying to fix it. Both change course once they find the experience unexpectedly changes them. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite modern films and Solaris is a tremendously trying experience. I recommend everyone see Solaris but I cannot say it’s better.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s way better than the remake. I was really shocked by Soderbergh’s version, especially because I love most of his work. I think Logan Lucky is one of the most remarkable comedies of the last twenty years. I mentioned small details, but I really think what makes the modern version so weird is that it doesn’t trust the viewer. Almost all of the movie is spent in explanation or backstory. None of this is very interesting and it creates a sensation that the story you’re actually seeing is very small. Tarkovsky’s version wanders around slowly, letting you fill in gaps with what you have to conclude for yourself. Audiences really hated Soderbergh’s version and while I’m sure they probably wouldn’t want to watch a three-hour Russian version of the same story, they would probably feel like it is a more human experience.

You can watch Solaris on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Royal Tenenbaums the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I had a friend in school who used to quote Wes Anderson movies all the time. “There are no teams,” he would tell me often, echoing a small, but important, joke from The Royal Tenenbaums. I was going to call Wes Anderson “divisive,” but that isn’t exactly it. It’s more that if he works for you, he really works for you. From the visual style to the vocal patterns, Anderson’s films are nothing if not specific. That specificity lends to a “universe” that people really connect with (or don’t).

My friends Mike and Eliza suggested this (and a few other movies) and I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for this review. I’ve seen it a handful of times and I count myself among the people still charmed by Anderson’s cutesy world. They don’t all work for me. I had a hard time sinking my teeth into The Darjeeling Limited and I only like, but don’t love, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which seems to be a full-on crime. I think Moonrise Kingdom is his best, but Tenenbaums was the first one that really clicked with me, so it’ll always be special.

This should be terrible. On premise alone, a dysfunctional family modeled after J.D. Salinger’s Glass family is a frustrating space to spend time. Adding “rich” and “aloof” as primary descriptors for the cast does not improve things. Mix in Anderson’s aesthetic and Gene Hackman as our primary character, a deadbeat absentee father who lies to get back into his family, and really, ugh. Did I mention it’s all supposedly part of a novel that Alec Baldwin reads to you periodically, in the style of Franny and Zooey?

It’s amazing that it works, but it’s even more amazing the degree to which it works. The cast is outstanding, obviously, but I couldn’t isolate anyone who doesn’t nail what they’re given. Every role has a “thing” to it, which Baldwin narrates as a way of introducing the character. This could feel contrived, as we’re told that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot has been smoking since she was 12 and acts out to try to get noticed and has soured as a result of that failing or Ben Stiller’s Chas is a recent widow who has become obsessed with safety but was always high-strung, but they feel fully realized immediately. The narration is constant but never feels tacked on or distracting. This alone is a feat.

Mitchell Hurwitz saw the comparisons to his idea for Arrested Development when he saw Tenenbaums. On this rewatch I was surprised by how much of Michael, the central figure in Hurwitz’s ensemble comedy, is in Chas. Tenenbaums is a comedy, sorta, but really modern ensemble comedy owes a lot to the way that Anderson is able to show us terrible people and make us care about something beyond punishment or redemption. I’d seen the movie many times but still, this time, I found myself interested in every arc and hoping for developments, good or bad. There are a dozen or so people in the extended family structure and nearly all of them are memorable and fascinating. Another feat.

Anderson is well known for his soundtracks and Tenenbaums may be the centerpiece of his career. The playful “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” kicks up as Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum picks his up grandkids to raise some hell. The somber “Needle in the Hay” plays during the film’s most shocking and upsetting climax. There are between two and fifty-five Nico songs, especially towards the end. This isn’t a viable criticism, but this effect has diminishing returns on rewatches. Nico is great, but I felt like every new scene found a new 45-second clip at an unnecessary pace towards the end. There’s no room to breathe, which I may only be noticing because of how many movies with longer, wandering paces I’ve seen recently.

This is not a scientific study, but if I had to guess, this is the most common answer people I’ve met have given for their favorite movie of all time. That alone is pretty remarkable, isn’t it? It’s only reflective of one person’s experience, which is in turn only reflective of one culture’s experience, but it’s still something. Most of the negative reviews don’t feel like Anderson nailed making his characters sympathetic or they hated how precious it was. Where’s the disconnect?

The first criticism first: Who says this is supposed to be sympathetic? Margot, the adopted Tenenbaum daughter, cheats on her miserable husband Raleigh St. Clair. You can read this as terrible behavior and feel for St. Clair or you can observe that he’s distant and doesn’t really understand her and infer that it probably never was a successful match in the first place. Margot is treated harshly by her father, even by his standards, and acts out. St. Clair tries to connect, but meekly and robotically. There are a dozen judgements to make, all correct. Probably most people feel like Margot is wrong here, but there’s no real attempt made to sell us on anyone being “good” short of Danny Glover’s character. Most everyone else is letting everyone down, in big or small ways.

The second: too cute? Anderson is the definition of A Lot as a director, to be sure, but buy the ticket, take the ride. As Wes Anderson movies go, this is practically boring from a style perspective. There’s no Sigur Rós underwater climax and no stop motion and no consistent-but-bizarre motif. The character who dresses the strangest, Eli Cash, is even remarked upon as essentially doing a bit, which is unheard of in the expanded Anderson universe. There are reasons, explained, inarguable reasons, for almost all of the strange choices. If you found this “too cute” I would imagine you are unable to abide the modern Anderson period where he’s learned that the choices absolutely do not need to be explained.

In my memory, this was much more affected, more “Andersonian,” than I found it upon rewatch. It also was much meaner as a distant idea than it is as a fresh film. I remembered less of a moral and more of a feeling of finality. I don’t know if multiple viewings or just a viewing as a much older person changed my mind, but I was really impressed. This is a movie that can grow with you and can reflect a different feeling towards family and forgiveness through different lenses. Most people I know have already seen it and it’s a fair bet you have, too, but try it again, no matter how cute you thought it was last time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I’ve watched both Le Samouraï and The Royal Tenenbaums a few times. Both are impressive, but Le Samouraï is marked by how little happens. It’s a tone piece about suspense and waiting to see if the bomb goes off in the end or not. There’s little doubt in The Royal Tenenbaums that these wealthy characters won’t experience many real struggles but also won’t find much in the way of real connection. You know the ending from the start, if not the actions then the feeling. That should make it less interesting, but the fact that you still will want to follow dozens of plots and characters says otherwise. Is one a harder feat to accomplish than the other? No, not really, but Tenebaums is a movie I could recommend to everyone. Le Samouraï may require some explanation.

Is it the best movie of all time? It’s a strong contender, but no, I still will go with In the Mood for Love. One of the challenges here is that The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I grew up watching. It came out when I was an older teenager and defined the way I saw film for many years. I’m too close to it, I too strongly want to nod towards it and call it perfect and capital I important and move on. I don’t have a good argument for why it isn’t other than the shock I felt then and the ton of bricks that lands on me now when I think about the ending to In the Mood for Love and how we got there.

You can watch The Royal Tenenbaums on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Le Samouraï the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

This is the first suggestion in this series, from the author of Over-The-Shoulder. I recommend checking out their blog if you like this one, especially the discussion of if a small budget makes Reservoir Dogs a better movie than it would have been otherwise. I have a few other recommendations to get through, but if you’d like to add to the list, instructions are at the bottom of this post.

Today’s film is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which provided heavy influence for the style of action movies today. The titular samurai is Jef Costello, played by the notoriously handsome Alain Delon. There is no description or discussion of Delon I can find that does not specifically call out this detail, which is fascinating. He’s great looking, obviously, but it’s interesting how consistently you see it called out when you read about his career. His charm is important, as he’s playing a laconic hitman with a curious code of honor.

Jef lives a stoic life. We see his apartment with a bunch of cigarettes and water bottles and not much else. He moves with determination, marching through life in a raincoat and hat and a grimace. We see him steal cars using a huge ring of skeleton keys and each time he stares straight ahead, clearly nervous but also intent on anyone watching seeing just another person. He must blend in, so even this distinctive look is intended to be forgettable among everyone else in Paris.

A handful of the better James Bond movies had just come out when Le Samouraï was released. The audience must have made the comparison, with this handsome gunman who oozes cool confidently entering scenes and demanding things of other characters. When Jef establishes his alibi before the hit, he tells a group of poker players that he never loses, not really. The “not really” is important, as it takes this beyond cliché and into a statement about who he is. Everything he does, from a simple apartment setup to the way he speaks with people, is tied up in an idea of himself as a lone wandering warrior. On the one hand, he kills for money, which seems inconsistent with any sort of code. However, it’s very clear he has no moral issues with this. He does what people ask and the rest will sort itself out.

Roger Ebert is almost always worth quoting, obviously, but here I want to pull out more than usual. He said Le Samouraï “teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense—how action releases tension instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don’t care about are happening constantly.” I could not agree more and I feel like this is the most important element of the film. A “cool” and quiet hitman who doesn’t care if what he does is right or wrong is a pretty bad starting point for a story. In lesser hands than Melville’s, this would be a character that would be really difficult to root for and a plot that it would be hard to connect with beyond wanting few people to die.

It works because of how little happens. Jef trades in his car’s license plates several times and barely speaks with his handler. He establishes an alibi and outwits the police once he’s identified, but most of what happens is other characters moving the plot. Jef is shifty and odd, but Delon is so handsome you find yourself drawn in. It’s really important that we have this time to develop an interest in Jef’s success, because if he was shooting people and running down alleyways all the time, we wouldn’t care. He’d just be James Bond.

I saw Drive before Le Samouraï, and it’s a very weird experience to see the result before the inspiration. I suspect most people will fall into that group, but I especially encourage you to see Melville’s film if you liked Drive. There’s obviously a lot going on in Drive that’s different, notably Le Samouraï spends a lot of time silent where Drive is mostly the soundtrack, but the connection between the main characters is hard to ignore. There have been other quiet anti-heroes, but this is really an obvious lift.

When something finally does happen, you care about it. You don’t really know if the police will catch him or if he wants to be caught or if he has something else planned until it all pays off. The ending is important to not spoil, so I won’t, but I will say that it pays off Jef’s code and ties up everything in an unexpected way. Melville isn’t necessarily trying to say something here so much as to show us something, but that’s not a criticism. This story model and this character type come up again and again in action films, but you are unlikely to find one where the director delivers so completely on their intention. Almost every scene is tense, even though almost nothing happens. Melville teaches us to constantly expect something even without paying off that intention until we finally care whether it happens or not. It’s not all explosions and car chases, but it’s a grander accomplishment than a continuous surprise that isn’t surprising at all.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Melville was an interesting character who played the interview subject in Breathless and he’s worth learning about if you aren’t familiar. He was fascinated by American cinema and there’s a larger discussion worth having about the influence of American film on Le Samouraï and vice versa. If more action films cared about their protagonist, I think we’d be much better off. In the Mood for Love is a totally different kind of movie that has a lot more space to breathe and to seep into your mind. It’s far less self contained and has a leg up for that, alone.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it might be the best action movie of all time. I’m not sure what my other pick would be, probably The French Connection. That’s a discussion for another day, but I think what draws me to Le Samouraï is that there’s enough of an internal consistency to what Jef does that he feels like a real character. We don’t see enough to learn why he does all this, though, and the fact that he’s in it for the money but lives such a cheap life is a fascinating element. It suggests that he really does view himself as a warrior who is intended to work this way. What would get you to that way of thinking? We don’t see, but that lets you fill it in yourself.

You can watch Le Samouraï on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is In the Mood for Love the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A lot of the discussion in this series so far has danced around what makes a film even eligible for the discussion. I don’t think it’s even possible to know, which is why this is an “eternal search.” As an American born in the 1980s, I have a specific perspective and most of the film I’ve seen is American film. I try to branch out when I can, but a lot of my background and a lot of what’s available to me is one kind of cinema.

The great lists are a place to start, but even that is imperfect. For every list, someone has a criticism. The most famous list used today is probably AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. The “American” in “American Film Institute” should tell you one problem, but the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum offers many others in his rebuttal and alternate list. You could do worse than the list Sight & Sound puts out once a decade. Robert Ebert called it the only one that real cinema folks “take seriously.”

The detail I find most interesting in all versions of “great” lists is that recency bias works against you. On the one hand, this isn’t all that shocking. People are more likely to list films in the canon on their list than to put something they just saw on it and it takes a long time for any collective consensus to form around anything. The more democratic lists like IMDB’s Top 100 work the opposite way. Everyone’s favorite movie is the thing they just saw.

AFI’s top 100 lists exactly one move from 2000 or later: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Sight & Sound list only has three. IMDB’s lists 37. This is a bigger statement about IMDB than it is anything else, but it’s interesting to see how these things shake out over time.

Yi Yi and Mulholland Drive come in at #93 and #28 respectively on the Sight & Sound list, but In the Mood for Love beats them both at #24. The methodology is not built exactly this way, but as the most recently movie released ahead of it is from 1979 (Apocalypse Now), we are left to assume that Sight & Sound says this is the best movie of the last thirty years. Those are pretty big shoes.

Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen meet in a hallway in Hong Kong in the 1960s. They both are in marriages that seem to be stressed, but in ways we struggle to understand at first. We see only parts of life, and even then only for extremely brief moments. We see the passing of time made clear, but no progression seems to take place.

Chow is a journalist and Su is a secretary. Their spouses both work and are frequently away, which creates a space for a friendship except for the external forces against them. Their neighbors are in the hallway all the time, asking after each of them and their spouses, and the pressure of society drills into them over and over. Su frequently dresses up to go to the noodle shop down the alley and Chow finds himself running into her in ways he can’t avoid or really handle.

The experience of these run-ins is powerful. Director Wong Kar-wai really wants us to feel the social constraints of two married neighbors who have no one to talk to but also can’t really talk to each other without creating a scandal. The pair and the supporting cast encounter others over and over in cramped hallways and have short conversations. In another director’s hands we’d get this explained to us, but here we just see so many versions in a row that we feel overwhelmed by the experience. It’s a better way to convey the world around them and how they feel moving around in it and the experience really works.

It’s also important to see this to realize this isn’t a couple slowly forming, exactly. It becomes clear that each of them is in a failing marriage and that infidelity is likely, but then even more shocking realizations become even more clear. This could be the setup for a love-rectangle, but that’s not exactly it. The two form a partnership, more accurately, and pass time with clandestine, chaste encounters. They even become business partners, after a fashion.

The film eventually follows the pair as they pursue their own version of happiness, but it isn’t the conclusion you’d anticipate. It isn’t even the direction you probably would expect, with really “important” narrative pieces omitted. This omission isn’t confusing, but it is just enough to make you wonder how our cast made it through all this, and if they could have done any of it differently.

It’s a love story with less love than you’re probably used to seeing in a genre film, but it’s definitely still a romance. I found it beautiful, often, and shocking without being extreme. Most of the film happens in hallways and offices and it asks you to look at characters, often obscured by railings or door frames, who have to consider very carefully if they are willing to reach for something new. I don’t think “love story” really sets the tone correctly, but this is too complex for any one identifier. The most powerful emotion is the tension of possibility that runs through the whole thing and really, though all of our lives. There are so many moments where another decision in the past would change your present life, and In the Mood for Love shows both the really obvious paths not taken and the small, quiet moments that only turned out to be other paths much later.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Dick Johnson is Dead is “modern” even compared to a “modern classic” like this one. This would be a better question with a documentary. There are a few more documentaries on my current list and I’ll revisit the question then. I certainly liked In the Mood for Love more.

Is it the best movie of all time? There are a handful of scenes where the two main characters act out other conversations, but we only realize they were acting after one of them breaks the scene. The film would work without these, but they’re what will stick with me for a long time after seeing it. The performances are strong, and they’d have to be with this small of a cast, but they are never stronger than these immediate shifts between swept-up lovers and then their real characters, neighbors who might be falling for each other and might not. These small touches, including an ending that I won’t spoil, pushes this one over the top for me. It’s not my favorite movie I’ve ever seen, but it is, I think, enough to edge out Badlands from the current top spot on our list.

You can watch In the Mood for Love on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Dick Johnson Is Dead the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Cinema is not important. Not really, at least. 2020 and 2021 have been strange for reasons that outpace even the craziest movie fan’s ability to suggest that the movies are what we’ve lost the most. It has been weird to not go to the movies, but it’s been weird for a billion other reasons that matter more.

That said, this is the first year in ten that I haven’t gone to the theater a dozen times in January to see all the Oscar contenders. It’s felt a little rudderless to not have to go see American Sniper or 1917 or whatever other brown-and-tan war movie is nominated this year that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The Oscars are ridiculous for a million reasons, but they are a useful tool to guide us into seeing movies. I once saw 45 Years at 11 a.m. by myself solely because it was the one movie nominated for a major award that I hadn’t seen. It was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

I don’t think most people think of movies this way, but I appreciate the guidelines. I queued up Dick Johnson Is Dead for a similar reason, to approximate the same experience. It’s on the lists and it probably won’t be on the final lists, but why not roll the dice on something, anyway? Every week is a month and every month is a year, so it’s time to get to the things you always say you’ll get to but you won’t.

It’s a documentary by a documentarian who is finally turning the camera inward, which is a genre that seems to be on the rise. I couldn’t stop thinking of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, which was one of my favorite shows of the year. Kirsten Johnson tells the story of her father, Dick Johnson, who is nearing the end of his life and suffering from memory loss with dementia. The movie is aggressively about death in a way that may put off some viewers. I don’t know what kind of trigger warning needs to be put here, but we are going to talk about death, exclusively, so if that is not your particular brand of coffee, you may want to leave.

The reviews are universally positive. I have not found anyone who said anything negative about this movie. This isn’t uncommon for a release like this, but it makes me feel stranger for asking a question that seemingly doesn’t need to be asked. Is this exploitative? Dick Johnson is clearly up for the premise, but the entire movie is about him not necessarily knowing what is appropriate and the loss of quality of life that accompanies that. It feels wild to say this because no one else seems to be bothered by it, but several times I felt genuinely sad for the premise of the film. On one long shot of him saying that an experience felt worse than the worst moment of his life, I had to wonder, do we really need to do this?

It’s a hard movie to talk about. The premise folds outward several times, with Kirsten telling a story about death through the lens of her still-living father. She films herself asking Dick if she can make a movie about him dying with him dying on camera, but not for real, and then films herself talking to people who can help simulate the experience. This folds out several times, with her filming her creating the documentary about her creating the film of an experience that will happen, but not exactly. Dick falls down stairs and is crushed by falling objects and so much more, but all of it happens interspersed with film about film.

This isn’t elder abuse, Dick clearly finds Kirsten’s premise funny and eats chocolate cake to simulate his life-changing heart attack and shakes his arm on command to make his fake corpse funnier. He’s along for the ride, but the documentary premise lets us see that he isn’t always super clear on what’s happening or why it would be interesting. This offers a small look at a much larger life, as we can imagine this is a version of a conversation that’s happened hundreds of times. The two are only on camera together a few times, but every moment is a story that we only see the slightest part of but fill in the gaps easily. It’s a love letter, which everyone says about everything, but this one really is.

The premise cannot be overstated. I think the best movie about the topic is Still Alice, which is the only movie I’ve ever sworn to never rewatch. I was haunted by it and still can’t really process it fully, it’s too close and too terrifying. It feels like Jaws and the ocean to me, with fears realized too perfectly and a validation of exactly what seems to be an irrationally large fear. You’re worried and then you see it and you realize you were right all along. Dick Johnson Is Dead stares at death and says that obsession is the right response. It says that it should consume you, not to rob the subject of fear, but to validate the grandness with the degree that it deserves. Death is the biggest thing in life and if you don’t make it huge in your own life, when it invades you will be entirely unprepared.

This may not work for everyone. I don’t think a movie where the premise is to make your elderly father think about his violent death to the point of enacting it with stunt doubles is going to connect with America. I assumed this would be an entry point to a larger conversation, but it isn’t. This is all of it, which isn’t a complaint. It’s just astounding that every brick laid on top of every brick in this movie is more death, more overwhelming fear of what might happen and how it might impact people. There’s a fake funeral where people seem to realize this isn’t necessarily fake, even if it is in the moment, and it feels really cruel to put people through all of this.

But that’s the most important thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead. Is it cruel? It’s awful to live in a cloud of death and fear of death, but it’s worse to pretend. Kirsten Johnson wants to be ready and her way to be ready is to do it all now. My father passed away unexpectedly and the only solace at all was that earlier he’d had a significant health scare that caused me to do some of the processing earlier. He lived, then, and so when he didn’t, I’d done some of the work. Kirsten Johnson has done way more work than that.

I went back and forth while watching it. I think it is too much and it’s clear from what the director leaves on the screen that her dad also thinks it’s too much. He also loves it, if not from a desire to be on camera then from a desire to spend time with his daughter. I think it’s an important movie and something that does something I haven’t seen done before. It’s not something I’d put someone through, but I don’t have this kind of relationship. The device always works even when some of the pieces don’t, and the fact that this exists at all is a testament to stories that need to be told even when they’re really difficult to tell.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? What would Howard Hawks have said? Hey, man, here’s a documentary from a year that starts with a 2 where a woman films her dad fake dying six times, what do you think? I will spend more of my limited time above ground thinking about the documentary than I will the story of a paleontologist being flustered into falling in love. It’s not really fair to Bringing Up Baby, but I do think this is a better movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? I want everyone in my life to watch this. I want people to talk about it and to hear what people think. I think this is one of those movies you can’t really “like” or “dislike,” you feel stronger than that in either direction. I rolled my eyes a little at some of the flashier fake sequences and I think some of that gets away from the story that really hooked me, so I am still going to stick with Badlands, but I really would be doing you a disservice if I ended this any other way than a demand that you give this an hour and a half. It’s grim, sure, but it’s not what you’re expecting.

You can watch Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Bringing Up Baby the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Bringing Up Baby shouldn’t work. It has two animal actors playing three animal parts. It’s a comedy with Katharine Hepburn, who wasn’t comfortable being funny. It has Cary Grant as a paleontologist who wants a specific dinosaur bone. It’s an absurd premise with even more absurd moving parts.

At the time, it didn’t work. Much has been written about the failure of the film, the fallout of the director at the studio, and the damage done to Hepburn’s reputation as a bankable star. There’s recently been a backlash to this perception and it’s notoriously difficult to isolate the “feeling” of the public with regard to a movie. It’s simple enough to say that Bringing Up Baby seemed to not work, at least to the degree it should have with the stars attached, and it took decades for it to gain the reputation it has now.

It’s a staple of early Hollywood comedy, now. It’s one of the go-to examples for a “screwball” comedy, a term for a specific genre of comedy where gender norms are flipped and a female dominates a male through wacky situations and misunderstandings. It’s as “of the time” as a genre can get, but a lot of the comedy in Bringing Up Baby works today. That timelessness is important to the legacy of the film.

Comedy is not well-represented on the “great films” lists. Some of this is just the nature of humor, where something is only funny if the audience understands what the joke is lampooning. I don’t want to try to explain what jokes are here, I trust you to understand why comedies aren’t on these lists very often, but it’s worth examining for a minute why the ones that do get listed find the spots they find.

If any comedies make it into a top 100 list, they are likely to be Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films or maybe a Marx Brothers movie. Only a handful have won Oscars, and the ones that have are more likely to win for individual performances rather than the bigger awards. I read someone claim that Tom Jones, a truly bizarre film that we’ll talk about another day, is the only “true” comedy to win Best Picture. Annie Hall, It Happened One Night, and The Sting are comedies, sure, but something about them set them apart in that person’s mind. You could get lost in this argument, but I mean to say that typically, we’re afraid to call a comedy a “great” film in the way that a drama feels appropriately “great.” The funniest movie you’ve ever seen may or may not be your favorite, but you may feel like it’s a different kind of art than The 400 Blows.

I promise I won’t try to explain what “jokes” are here, but Bringing Up Baby is funny because there’s a really big cat, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, who opens the film with one minute of nearly uninterrupted exposition. He says he wants a dinosaur bone to finish his dinosaur and to make his museum truly excellent. He says he’s going to get married tomorrow, to Alice, who we meet for the first and nearly last time. He says he wants to get a million dollars from a significant investor he has to go play golf with. It happens faster than any movie I can think of and we’re into the plot, immediately.

Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby, as well as films as different as Sergeant York and The Big Sleep. He’s one of the legends of American cinema, but I’d like to focus on His Girl Friday. Grant plays a newspaperman who has to win back his ex-wife played by Rosalind Russell. The dialogue is so fast as to be confusing, with subtitles suggested even for viewers who speak English fluently. It’s another acclaimed screwball romantic comedy and it helps explain what Hawks is trying to do with Bringing Up Baby.

The newspaper story is more relatable to audiences. His Girl Friday came later, after Hawks said he learned from the failure of Bringing Up Baby that not every character in a wacky movie should be wacky. You need normal people to reflect the craziness. His Girl Friday uses normal people to show how boring daily life is if you don’t pump it full of excitement. Bringing Up Baby has no normal people because they live in a crazy version of our world.

In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn ruins Grant’s golf outing and wedding day by constantly showing up and getting him wrapped up in schemes. It builds and builds until she calls him to say she has a leopard in her room because she was sent it in a box. He doesn’t believe her until she bangs on the phone and pretends to be hurt. He rushes over and finds the story is true, there’s a leopard.

The straight-laced Grant is undone by the weirdness and tries to keep his reputation intact while the wild Hepburn tries to break his defenses and get him to have fun. It’s built on a love story that develops as she keeps telling him he looks attractive without glasses or that he should stay and break his wedding date, but Grant rebuffs her until the obvious point where he doesn’t.

Comedy has escalated in modern times to the point where a leopard may not seem that weird, but it’s extremely strange in the world of 1930s film. Side characters keep being frustrated by people telling them they’ve seen the leopard or that they want to see the leopard, similar to how a ghost or a monster would function in a different kind of movie. No one believes there’s a leopard in Connecticut, but then they slowly find out there is. That’s really all there is to it, but I cannot overstate how weird it is to see Katharine Hepburn in a shot with a big jungle cat.

You can’t be objective about comedy, which is a big reason the big lists are so full of dour stories about war and strife. Either you think a story about two folks from the city trying to figure out what to do with a leopard at a dinner party is funny or you don’t. The stars are undeniable, though, which you’d probably expect given the names. The story goes that Hepburn struggled with the “bigness” of the role until she figured out how to present the part as funny. She plays a flipped version of this pairing (in that she’s the straight-laced one) in The African Queen, and arguably that works better, though at a different point in her life. Hepburn defies simple descriptions, but I was surprised to hear that about the production given the final result.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think it’s far better than The Searchers, but I think most people wouldn’t agree with that. You can’t root for John Wayne in The Searchers and I’m not entirely sure that you were supposed to be able to do so when it came out, but it’s a tough narrative to get into given that challenge. As Westerns go it’s a classic the same way this film is a classic of early Hollywood romantic comedy, but I don’t think I’ll go back to The Searchers for future viewings. I could see revisiting this.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think a comedy could be better than Badlands, but I don’t think this one is. The romance is fun to watch but unbelievable as presented and the side characters are hilarious but truly bizarre. I really love the storyline of an expert in psychology telling Hepburn that men who follow women around are obsessed and expressing it as a direct reference to her own plan and all the tiny moments like that, but it’s all just in too strange of a package for me to say it’s the best one. It’s shockingly funny almost a century later, though, and that’s a truly remarkable achievement.

You can watch Bringing Up Baby on The Criterion Channel (for now, it’s leaving soon) or Amazon Prime for $2.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Searchers the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

My favorite John Wayne performance is in The Quiet Man, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a gruff cowboy going to Ireland and falling in love with a fiery woman. It’s a strange movie, but it’s also not all that much more complex than that line would lead you to believe. Whatever you feel about John Wayne, it would be tough to say he has “range” as an actor, but he pulls off the comedy of that story (and True Grit, obviously) well. John Ford won an Academy Award for directing it and it’s a certified classic as a spin on a few different genres. The climactic fight really needs to be seen to be believed.

John Wayne works best when everyone around him is as little like John Wayne as possible. The idea of American masculinity at the time (and still today, in a lot of ways) is wrapped up in what John Wayne showed on the screen. In most John Wayne pictures, he shows up and gets exasperated at people who want to talk and plan. He acts. He’s effective because you don’t need to spend a lot of characterization to understand what he wants or how he plans to get it. Just as Peter Lorre visually transmits a completely different idea, Wayne requires very little storytelling for an audience to understand “good guy cowboy.”

The Searchers doesn’t completely bend that idea, but it does complicate it. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a proud Confederate soldier who comes home to Texas years later after the war is lost and the world is changed. The subtext of The Quiet Man allows for some space where a brash American wandering into another culture and making a mess of things is actually a bad thing, but John Ford’s The Searchers is careful to tell us this hero of American masculinity and strength is actually an American terrorist. The audience in 1956 wouldn’t have used that term, but Wayne’s character is openly hostile to the figures that represent order and what we’d consider “the good guys.”

This is a really fascinating place to start. It would be one thing to introduce Ethan as a character always at odds with authority and someone we should view as a rebel, but Ford goes beyond that. Ethan makes a joke late in the movie about Union soldiers retreating, which is extra fascinating in the context of who they both are and what they represent. The Union solder is the son of a commanding officer and is clearly young and green and offers a contrast to Ethan’s experience and earned respect. Even still, every mention of Ethan’s background is grounded in his defense, even after the loss, of a racist rebellion that was quelled.

We live in a much different time, both than when this movie is set and when it was released. It’s not productive or even useful to try to ask what The Searchers means to a modern audience. This is becoming a theme in these reviews, though, because it’s how you will consume the movie. Ethan was supposed to read to the audience as a rebel, literally, but also as someone tough and resourceful. At the start of the story, Ethan has been through a tremendous, difficult journey, but one that, if examined, we wouldn’t agree was worth it.

This is important. Ethan is the main character, but he’s an evil, relentless bastard who takes every opportunity possible to extend cruelty. We aren’t supposed to hate him, exactly, but we aren’t supposed to agree with him, either. He comes home to a world slightly changed, but one where everyone still thinks he’s a hero and a symbol of virtue. Ward Bond plays the local lawman (and reverend) and he’s the only one who offers resistance to these ideas. Even he says they’ll sort it all out down the line and eventually sides with him, anyway.

Ethan’s family is murdered by Comanche and he vows to save the two women they abduct. He gives chase and stays on their trail for several years, with only his adopted nephew by his side. Martin Pawley, the nephew, is one-eighth Cherokee and Wayne’s character consistently uses slurs and insults him through the movie. It would be worth commenting on, but it’s pretty small in comparison to Ethan’s larger ethos.

Ethan believes the Comanche are soulless murderers, subhuman beyond discussion. When he encounters a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots the eyes out of the corpse explicitly to prevent the warrior from entering the afterlife. It goes well beyond establishing Ethan and the Comanche as antagonists and well beyond any rescue mission idea. Obviously the plot is a murder-revenge story, so Ford’s story tells us there’s a reason for this belief structure, but Ethan is explicitly racist, even in contrast to other characters.

It becomes clear early on that only one of the two women might be saved. Ethan vows that he will save her or kill her, and it’s really not all that important which it is. The rest of the cast is horrified, and this is really central to what Ford is trying to tell us about Ethan. It would be one thing to paint this as a reasonable response, but The Searchers is about the open war between the white settlers and the Comanche as much as it is about the fading humanity of Ethan Edwards. John Wayne usually saves the day, but here he no longer cares if the day gets saved or not. He’s going to finish this task, day be damned.

There’s a critical consensus around The Searchers as the best Western of all time and it’s easy to see why. The shots are gorgeous, even during a weird diversion in the snow. The side characters fill out the world, with a few memorable oddballs that give that trademark Western so-bad-it’s-good performance that is required to make the West feel different and specific. Natalie Wood is especially strange with the impossible task of the “converted” Comanche that Ethan and company need to save.

In 2021 it’s an extremely hard sell to watch John Wayne as a racist, psychotic Confederate soldier as the hero. But he’s not, and he wasn’t even at the time. There’s a lot of people who probably saw it all as justified and we’re definitely led down that path, but John Ford wants us to reject that. I don’t know that the story pushes hard enough on that idea for me to say that I love it, but I see what people see in it. It’s influenced dozens and dozens of iconic directors and films. John Ford and John Wayne made a million of these movies, but nothing really exactly like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think there’s a legitimate defense of Johnny Guitar as a better Western than The Searchers, but I like it more. It’s not a better movie, I suppose, and Wayne’s performance has a much higher degree of difficulty than what Crawford and Hayden turn in for Johnny Guitar. This is one of the highest rated movies of all time by just about any metric you choose, but I struggled with it even though the lens of what it’s supposed to be. When I first saw it years ago I didn’t care for it much and while I liked it a great deal more and found it more complicated this time, it’s still just not for me.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t even think it’s the best John Ford/John Wayne movie, so no, it’s not. I also don’t think it’s better than Badlands, another story about an evil protagonist that we find hard to identify with during murders. Badlands works a trick of making the unacceptable seem benign, while The Searchers asks how unacceptable different characters find truly unacceptable things. There are similar ideas here, but I’ll come back to Badlands more often.

You can watch The Searchers on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Johnny Guitar the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Nicholas Ray may be best known for Rebel Without a Cause, but also directed In a Lonely Place, an incredible noir story about a screenwriter with a temper. Humphrey Bogart plays the lead, and he’s charming in that way that only Bogey can be. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this flaw will undo all of his efforts, but Gloria Grahame still wants to make this work. As with all noir, the style trumps the substance, but it’s a phenomenal piece of character work and it holds that tense, sad mood without falling off the edge.

Ray is a “director’s director” in a way, though he’s made a ton of great films he’s more often someone you’ll come across when you’re listening to another director talk about great filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard said that Ray “is cinema” which is, I think, as high praise as you can possibly get.

In between In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray made a handful of movies. The one that you’ll see on a list of “best” films of the era is the Western Johnny Guitar. I will confess to putting this one off for years, mostly based on the name. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite movies, but this is a Western called Johnny Guitar. What can you possibly expect?

There are only a handful of Westerns on the lists of great films. It’s an inherently American genre, which cuts into the possibilities. It’s a genre that’s really heavy on tropes and established understanding. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but even the iconic Westerns tend to end up following similar morality plays and similar paths to victory. This is by design, with “white hat” and “black hat” characters with limited complexity to get to the good stuff quicker.

You could make this same claim for any other genre (what great romance is truly more complex at the core than “the guy/girl gets the guy/girl”?) but it feels appropriate to describe Westerns this way when approaching Johnny Guitar. Many Westerns are more complicated than the A to B story I’m implying, but in the 1950s they didn’t always bend the genre. Nicholas Ray was just a few years past one of the greatest film noir stories of the time, so it makes sense that he’d try to find that sensibility within a Western.

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the fiery owner of a local drinking establishment that offers “cards and whiskey” to the rough crowds that are willing to leave town to find fun. Sterling Hayden enters early as Johnny Guitar, a seemingly brash yet peaceful wandering musician. He carries no guns and may be the only person in the saloon without a drawn weapon and a desire to use it.

The local law threatens to shut Vienna down to keep the peace and to pacify Emma Small, the woman-in-black rival played by Mercedes McCambridge. It becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is actually Johnny Logan, famed gunslinger, and Vienna has to decide if she’s willing to fight with him to keep her way of life or if the opposition is too strong.

So far, this is all standard Western fare. The leader of the black hats is The Dancin’ Kid, played by Western mainstay Scott Brady. His gang has some other familiar players for the genre, but also Ernest Borgnine. It wasn’t his only Western, but he’s recognizable enough from his career of character work that he adds some humor and some off-kilter sensibility to the whole thing.

The reveal that Johnny Guitar is actually a legend of the West happens just about immediately and he never picks the guitar up again. He’s so famous that his name alone shocks every person that hears it, but not so famous that anyone recognizes him, somehow. These are the old days, just go with it.

Once the cast is established and it’s clear that Emma won’t let Vienna live, it becomes a story about the willingness to use violence to advance your station. The bad guys are bad because it’s a way to get by. Johnny was a gunfighter, but it made him twisted and he’s tried to go straight and deny the impulses. Even Vienna wants to get away from small-town stuff and industrialize her business before the railroad comes in and they lose the war on progress either way.

The townsfolk represent the resistance to the inevitable. They balk at making choices and they seem fine to preserve the status quo, even if it means a band of obvious criminals wanders around. This is what they understand, we come to realize, and everything else represents a fear to be avoided.

Crawford had been in films for three decades and this would be one of her last great works, but Hayden was still rising. Nearly everything he’s remembered for would follow Johnny Guitar. This isn’t either of their best work, but it’s compelling to see them work together. They have to sell you on a love from five years ago through small details, knowing looks, and a resistance to going back to those people in those days. It works, mostly, especially in shots where we see only the two leads in a room of dozens of people. Most of the acting is in these looks and the decisions we watch silently while Johnny Guitar has to decide if he’s going to be Johnny Logan again or not.

Everyone was either having an affair with someone else or deeply hated everyone else while making this, but not that you’d notice it in the finished product. McCambridge plays her role so one-note that she’s shaking with anger or screaming for blood in every scene, so it’s hard to imagine her being any way off screen influencing her choices. There’s very little attempt made to make us side with her, but in a movie so full of dashing rogues, she really has no shot.

Contemporary reviews called it a Western cliché, which is bizarre for how often it runs away from those ideas. They called Crawford “sexless,” similarly weird given how much time is spent on the suggestion that she slept her way to the top. She was a decade older (or more, her age is famously impossible to pin down) than her co-star, but she’s clearly the center of the movie. In the decades after the initial quiet, this became one of the greats of the genre and a movie that people steal and borrow from often.

This is a romance set in the West, not a Western with a romance in it, and it spends a lot of time on some really forward thinking concepts like the morality of industrialization and if you should run from progress or milk it. It’s not the director’s best work or any of actors’ standout pictures, but the sum of the parts is extremely watchable and really something special, even if you don’t typically enjoy Westerns.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Blowup is possibly held in even higher esteem and was more well-liked at the time it came out, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. Johnny Guitar really sets the bar with establishing scenes in a way I want to call out. I was frustrated by the first half of Blowup but really noted how immediately Johnny Guitar established the world it wanted us to understand. We care about why people react the way they do, even down to the cowardly townsfolk.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it probably doesn’t bring enough to any genre to satisfy fans of just one, and McCambridge’s demonic villain is one-note. It’s inarguably great and surprisingly watchable, but not better than Badlands. It also ends with a song, which was fine for the time but is laugh-out-loud funny now. The ending is much more nuanced than the big beaming smiles and fun song suggest, which lands really strangely. It’s a small thing, but it’s something you’ll definitely notice. It’s exactly like Cat Ballou, but that was supposed to be a comedy.

You can watch Johnny Guitar on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.